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Archive for the ‘coetzee’ Category

austerity 2: comment on paye ses dettes quand on a du génie, or vice versa

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In his “fictionalized memoir” Youth, J.M. Coetzee describes living in a place that just happens to be only a few steps away from Marx’s grave.  At this point in the book, he’s just gotten a job working as a programmer for IBM in London.

Now that he has an income, he is able to rent a room of his own in a house off Archway Road in north London. The room is on the second floor, with a view over a water reservoir. It has a gas heater and a little alcove with a gas cooker and shelves for food and crockery. In a corner is the meter: you put in a shilling and get a shilling’s supply of gas.

His diet is unvarying: apples, oats porridge, bread and cheese, and spiced sausages called chipolatas, which he fries over the cooker. He prefers chipolatas to real sausages because they do not need to be refrigerated. Nor do they ooze grease when they fry. He suspects there is lots of potato flour mixed in with the ground meat. But potato flour is not bad for one.

I have never had to write for money. Whether I am capable of doing it or not is another question. I could have used some money in college, but I was too young then. During grad school, there was the stipend – $13,000, split most years between myself and my wife – just enough to keep oneself in a university subsidised one-bedroom in a banally modernist high-rise in the woods. Later, there was paying work, academic jobs – three of them, actually, one after another.

When I first moved to Brooklyn, just as the inflation level of the real estate bubble passed from ridiculous to obscene, I decided that I wanted to buy an apartment and I wanted to do it by writing a novel. It was the era of that sort thing; one of the students that I had taught had just signed a seven-figure contract for two books, was about to buy a gigantic house in Park Slope. And so I sat in the tiny kitchen at the tiny table that we had found that would actually fit it and typed a novel into my laptop, night after night. I would smoke several cigarettes with the window open and the fan on, write, and then go to sleep.

There were mice and cockroaches, yes. Both the little roaches that come in packs and the big indestructible lone motherfuckers, the ones that you could mash with the end of an aluminium baseball bat and they’d pause for a second only to resume their steady sprint around the living room floor.

I actually finished the novel – the only one I’ve ever finished. It’s resting in a document file somewhere on my hard drive, unopened since the day I completed it. It was about a couple who make their living by running an amateur pornography site. Then someone falls in love with her, one of the customers. And then they meet, and nothing’s there.

No good. Obviously I never did anything with this thing. And then I got a job and another and another. It’s nice to make money from writing, but even if I did, it wouldn’t substantially change my lifestyle.

Bourdieu’s writings on art suggests that the negotiation with having to write for money or not – and all the grey areas between the two, like having to write for money but pretending you don’t or not having to write for money but pretending you do – is a or even then defininitive factor in the determination of literary stance and even literary form. It happens simultaneously, in his reading, on the level of the individual artist and as an aggregate effect. For instance, a wider range of people in mid-19th century France get secondary education, smart but poor young men rush into the city looking for work they do with their heads rather than their hands, and the feuilletons, reviews, and papers fill with new names but new names often writing commercialised shit, whatever pays the bills. Or, from the other direction, there is the young man who inherits a sizeable fortune, but then out of stupidity, addiction, or pose, squanders it, and then is himself forced to dip into something that he can’t stop comparing to prostitution, even if he knows it’s not quite the same thing.

Bourdieu is persuasive on this point – that it is out of the warp and woof of having money and needing money that literature itself, as a category, is born, and close on its heels (to extend his point slightly) modernism. Every document of civilisation is at the same time a document of one form of aristocracy or another separating itself from the barbarism of commerce… or one form of meritocracy separating itself from the barbarism of unanchored hierarchy. Or both at the same time.

But that world has passed, the machine that generates distinction has rolled itself to a stop. Neither are there aristocratic redoubts to remove to, nor is there money to be made in this business. Instead, we’re all in a bedsit just off Archway Road, counting off our meagre amenities, proud of ourselves for having found a brand of sausage that doesn’t go bad when the fridge is broken or never existed to begin with. We read the Observer on Sunday; we are careful with our spending on lunch, whether we really need to be or not. We are, like the young Coetzee, austere with our stipends and we go into great detail about it, if only with ourselves. It only takes a glance at the work, all of it, to discover the effect that this austerity has had on the form, the quality, and the pertinence of the things that we make.

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August 27, 2009 at 7:25 am

Posted in austerity, coetzee

coetzee live

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Well, almost. You can listen here. I’ve never before heard him read.

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August 15, 2009 at 1:01 am

Posted in coetzee

“I don’t want to be a professor”

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I’ve been telling anyone who will listen (after I was myself alerted to it by IT) that Coetzee’s review of the new edition of Beckett’s letters in the NYRB is not to be missed. Here’s the start of it:

In 1923 Samuel Barclay Beckett, aged seventeen, was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, to study Romance languages. He proved an exceptional student, and was taken under the wing of Thomas Rudmose-Brown, professor of French, who did all he could to advance the young man’s career, securing for him on graduation first a visiting lectureship at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, then a position back at Trinity College.

After a year and a half at Trinity, performing what he called the “grotesque comedy of lecturing,” Beckett resigned and fled back to Paris. Yet even after this letdown, Rudmose-Brown did not give up on his protégé. As late as 1937 he was still trying to nudge Beckett back into the academy, persuading him to apply for a lectureship in Italian at the University of Cape Town. “I may say without exaggeration,” he wrote in a supporting letter, “that as well as possessing a sound academic knowledge of the Italian, French and German languages, [Mr Beckett] has remarkable creative faculty.” In a postscript he added: “Mr Beckett has an adequate knowledge of Provençal, ancient and modern.”

Beckett felt genuine fondness and respect for Rudmose-Brown, a Racine specialist with an interest in the contemporary French literary scene. Beckett’s first book, a monograph on Proust (1931), though commissioned as a general introduction to this challenging new writer, reads more like an essay by a superior graduate student intent on impressing his professor. Beckett himself had severe doubts about the book. Rereading it, he “wondered what [he] was talking about,” as he confided to his friend Thomas McGreevy. It seemed to be “a distorted steam-rolled equivalent of some aspect or confusion of aspects of myself…tied somehow on to Proust…. Not that I care. I don’t want to be a professor.”

Ugh. Yep, another one of those stories about a brave and successful escape from academia. Coetzee slyly mentions later on in the review that “through contacts at the then University of Buffalo [Beckett] also drops hints that he might look kindly on an offer from that quarter (it did not come).” You might know or not know that Coetzee held a teaching position at Buffalo for a bit. You might know or not know something else that I can’t to get into, but let’s just say I’ve heard and reheard the story about the end of his time as an assistant professor, specializing in I suppose British modernism, over and over and over again and from those who would know. But let’s just say I really appreciated Coetzee’s little in-joke.

Really good reason why this blog can’t have my name on it: I’d like to get out, and I really can’t talk about that publically, under my own name. I have a vague plan to get out – something we refer to in my household as the “five-year plan.” I won’t go into the hows of this, but it’s something I’d very much like to do. Unlike Beckett, I actually enjoy teaching, the classroom time, and the reports back from my students would be very different from those that he received. But the damned business shreds time, absolutely shreds it. It’s not the time in the classroom that’s the problem. But lately, since I’m on Easter break, I’ve been indulging myself and working on whatever I like for afternoons at a time, and the work is better and far more pleasing than anything else that I do at any other point in the year.

Anyway, I also appreciated the following:

Though Beckett’s literary output during the twelve years covered by these letters is fairly thin—the Proust monograph; an apprentice novel, A Dream of Fair to Middling Women, disowned and not published during his lifetime; the stories More Pricks Than Kicks ; Murphy ; a volume of poems; some book reviews—he is far from inactive. He reads extensively in philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Schopenhauer. On Schopenhauer he reports: “A pleasure…to find a philosopher that can be read like a poet, with an entire indifference to the apriori forms of verification.” He works intensively on Geulincx, reading his Ethics in the original Latin: his study notes have recently been unearthed and published as a companion to a new English translation.

Twelve years of relatively thin publication, from age 23 to 34. (It’s not really that thin, is it?) Twelve years of reading and periodic publishing and abortive teaching and bouts of psychoanalysis. Coetzee brought out his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974, when he was 34, three years after he stopped teaching at Buffalo.

There’s something deformative, something that you parry with for a long time, about having spent your twenties in the stupid hothouse of New York, or more specifically Brooklyn, during the bubble, again more specifically the period literarily speaking between the founding of Tina Brown’s Talk (remember?) and the founding of n+1. What would Beckett have made of it? What would Coetzee? My wife and I are still reeling from it a bit, I think it’s safe to say. We are 31 and 32 respectively. Anyway, Coetzee writes a lot of stuff about old men lately – he makes his alter-egos even older than he is himself – but this is a valuable review focused on what it means to be a different sort of old man, a young old man, in transit between the business of teaching and the business of writing.

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April 17, 2009 at 12:21 am

Posted in beckett, coetzee

jmc, summertime

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Coming later this summer…. Apparently, though reports aren’t entirely clear, it falls under the memoir rather than fiction rubric, if thinking about rubrics still makes any sense at all when talking about his recent works.

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April 11, 2009 at 8:17 am

Posted in coetzee

battle of the titans…

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…the titans of my own personal canon. Here, in an excellent review of new works from Kundera, Coetzee, Sontag, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Rée has one of my favorites going after another.

But Coetzee does not confine his attention to novelists, and an outstanding essay on Walt Whitman allows him to explore a conception of democracy that he himself would evidently endorse: democratic politics, he suggests, is “not one of the superficial inventions of human reason but an aspect of the ever-developing human spirit, rooted in eros.” Those who make a fetish out of politics, he implies, are in danger of foreclosing on democracy. Take Walter Benjamin, for example. Coetzee, refusing to treat him with the awed indulgence that has become customary, contends that when Benjamin decided to become a good communist, it was not through an imaginative appraisal of political options, but was simply “an act of choosing sides, morally and historically, against the bourgeoisie and his own bourgeois origins.” And if there was something silly and unconvincing about Benjamin’s Marxism—”something forced about it, something merely reactive”—it could perhaps be attributed to a certain literary narcissism. “As a writer, Benjamin had no gift for evoking other people,” Coetzee says; he had “no talent as a storyteller,” and no capacity for the kind of compassionate intelligence implicit in the art of the novel. In a perverse attempt to opt for political realism rather than literary imagination, Benjamin managed to cut himself off from both.

This is interesting stuff, isn’t it? Coetzee has morphed into a writer who, when set to write fiction turns up with an essay in hand, just as when the situation calls for an essay, he throws fiction. But here, he accuses Benjamin of being neither fish nor fowl: his engagement was only ever forced and Oedipal, and on the other hand when he turns in the other direction he only discovers his own talentlessness.

Despite being a reflexive defender of Coetzee, I actually think he gets it very wrong here in the end. I actually think – and have written and may one day publish – that it is exactly when WB got most literary (in a certain specific way that there’s not really time to explain here, but the “messianic” threads are where I’m headed) that his work skewed toward a sort of portentous uselessness and maybe even something like bad faith.

More to say about this, of course, but then I’d be traipsing into my own real world work, which simply is not done, chez adswithoutproducts. But a few other things from Rée’s essay. Discussing Sontag’s At the Same Time, he notes that Sontag’s

fury at the condition of the US—she speaks of a “culture of shamelessness,” marked by an “increasing acceptance of brutality” in which politics has been obliterated and “replaced by psychotherapy”—seems to have made her forget her own better self.

…which is, I think, exactly the conclusion, in basically exactly the same terms, that the soon-to-be-departed Sopranos has been building to, no?

And finally, what to make of Vargas Llosa’s redeployment of the “democratic” and “pluralistic” ethos of the novel into service (both metaphorical and, according to him, material, historical) of the neoliberal project?

Vargas Llosa’s prose is sometimes slow-paced, but it speeds up when he reflects on the “collectivist ideology” of nationality. “There are no nations,” he says, at least not in a way that could “define individuals through their belonging to a human conglomerate marked out as different from others by certain characteristics such as race, language and religion.” For Vargas Llosa, nationalism is always “a lie,” but its rebuttal is to be found not so much in high-toned internationalist universalism as in the dissociative particularities of literature, and especially in a well-narrated novel. The novel, he thinks, articulates a basic human desire—the desire to be “many people, as many as it would take to assuage the burning desires that possess us.” Alternatively, it stands for a basic human right—the right not to be the same as oneself, let alone the same as other people. And the defiant history of democracy began not in politics but in literature, when Cervantes first tackled “the problem of the narrator,” or the question of who gets to tell the story. No doubt about it: Don Quixote is “a 21st-century novel.”

Another horribly quick answer: I think he might well be right about this. I also think that this is exactly, if indirectly, one of the issues that writers we term “modernist” had with the form from the start of the period / movement. Right from Bovary forward, where Vargas Llosa’s “basic human desire” to identification gets twisted into a very strange knot indeed…

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June 6, 2007 at 10:11 am

biocentrism

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Serendipitously, while looking at something unconnected, I may have located the start of an answer to my issue from yesterday:

It is significant, I think, that “anthropomorphic” has no inverse, no opposite. There is no word, that is, for the attribution of inhuman characteristics to humans or humanity.

From Derek Attridge’s “Age of Bronze, State of Grace: Music and Dogs in Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace,” located here if you have access.

Coetzee’s novel has some affinities with what Margot Norris, in Beast of the Modern Imagination, terms the “biocentric” tradition in modern art: not that Coetzee creates animals in the manner of writers she discusses, “with their animality speaking” (1), but that his work like theirs (and like hers) tries to imagine a relation to animal life outside of the worthy but limited concept of what Norris calls “responsible stewardship” (24).

Attridge’s essay also appears here, if you’re interested. Have to get the Norris, now…

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April 5, 2006 at 4:23 pm

Posted in animal, coetzee